The UK economy is already 3% smaller as a direct result of Brexit. This, according to David Bailey, professor and economist at Aston University in Birmingham.
Bailey went on to say that the economic contraction was primarily due to reduced investment directly attributable to uncertainty around how businesses would operate in a post-Brexit economy.
The comments were made at the Plastics in Automotive seminar, organised by the British Plastics Federation and held at the Jaguar Land Rover Experience Centre in Castle Bromwich.
The car industry expert had more bad news. With the government making a U-turn on promoting diesel, despite the latest Euro 6 versions being less polluting than petrol equivalents in some cases, demonising of the engine choice has resulted in a precipitous market decline.
Sales in the UK of diesel models fell 31% in 2018. The market is now forecast to fall a further 30% over 2019.
Across Europe, which is the destination for about 80% of all vehicles manufactured in the UK, Bailey noted that the diesel portion of the new car market could fall to just 15% by 2025.
Just 10 years ago, diesel-powered vehicles accounted for about 50% of new vehicle sales across the trading bloc.
On the flip side of this, electric vehicles (EVs) are starting to make sizeable market inroads. Through September 2019, sales of EVs in the UK had reached 25,000 units. This is 122% increase over 2018 numbers over the same period (11,300 units).
The rise of EVs in the market is an opportunity for manufacturers of plastic parts. Beyond the addition of a larger battery pack, lightweighting is a key route to increasing range. Being lighter and cheaper than most alternatives, plastics offer a simple, efficient route to cutting overall vehicle mass.
Michael Fischer, head of business development at Engel UK, noted that there are a series of opportunities for production of plastic parts for EVs.
Many EVs are based on a standard internal combustion equivalent, meaning they feature body apertures for engine cooling. These openings are not needed to cool EV powertrains, so need to be closed off to reduce drag and improve efficiency.
Engel has developed a test product for helping to close these grille openings, as Fischer explained: “The parts are lightweight and semi-transparent,” said Fischer. “They can have decorative foils, or in the future they could have lighting systems which communicate with pedestrians, letting them know the vehicle is approaching.”
This would be particularly useful with autonomous or self-driving vehicles, where there might not be an opportunity for pedestrian/driver eye contact.
The parts have other interesting features. “The material is self-healing,” said Fischer in a conversation after the event. “It can’t fill in material which has been gouged out, but if a dent is made in the surface the material has a ‘memory’ which the material uses to make the mark disappear.”
This and other features should help to maintain the finish of the plate, helping it to potentially last the lifetime of the vehicle.
Other plastics applications Engel has worked on in the automotive sector include reinforcing door panels. The injection moulded parts can have a variety of thicknesses, which eliminates unnecessary material and reduces part weight. This is similar to the function of tailor-welded blanks, in some cases produced to achieve variable material thickness, but with more precise material placement and a lower finished part cost.
New vehicle output in the UK is continuing to contract. David Bailey noted that total finished vehicle volumes had fallen by -16% over 2019 and they were likely to continue on this trajectory until the UK/EU relationship has been clarified.
The upside to this is that local sourcing will help to off-set any future tariffs imposed due to the UK leaving the EU. As such, plastics manufacturers in the UK could look to leverage their local position and help OEMs by increasing this local content percentage. While specifics of what actually classifies as 'local content' in a post-Brexit world have yet to be fixed, it would appear better to be in the game than not.